by Kevin Lipe
I’ve been extremely reticent to give any sort of prediction about how many games the Grizzlies are going to win this year, and usually by training camp I’ve at least got a pretty clear range in my head. Several people have asked me this question in the last week, and I’ve mostly blown it off, but I think a better approach might be to give a few answers and explanations. I’m going to give three scenarios (best-case, decent, and This Is Bad) and a range of wins for each scenario.
In this scenario, Chandler Parsons misses the regular season opener but he’s ready to go by the end of November. In the meantime, the team is totally bought in to Fizdale’s principles and trust that the new way of playing is actually an improvement over the old way (rather than, say, insisting that he reinstall plays from the Lionel Hollins era when things get tough). The defense struggles a bit (outside of Allen/Gasol/Conley, defense is probably going to be the struggle this year in this scenario, because offensively this could be the most versatile Griz squad we’ve seen), but not so much that they get killed by spread pick-and-roll teams like they did early last year. Meanwhile the Spurs and Mavs struggle out of the gate, the Pelicans do whatever it is the Pelicans do, and the Rockets, now led by Mike D’Antoni and James Harden, Point Guard, score 130 points a night.
In this scenario, which is the best case for the first year of a new coach and adjusting to playing with a mostly-new roster in a mostly-new way, I’d put the Grizzlies at 50 wins. They’re going to have some growing pains even if things are going well—that’s just part of the evolutionary process. Depth is a factor at the guard positions, and defense is a question in the frontcourt (other than Marc Gasol, obviously). If everyone’s healthy and getting comfortable with Fizdale’s principles, I think that’s about where they’ll end up.
There’s a middle-path scenario here that takes into account the inevitable stumbling blocks facing a team undergoing this much of a change in direction. This is a group that, in two out of Dave Joerger’s three seasons, failed to actually implement the changes put in place in training camp, and two weeks into the season after a rough start reverted to the Lionel Hollins-era playbook. What happens when they hit a rough patch? Will they be able to stick with The Fizdale Doctrine, or will they seek a return to what’s comfortable?
I’m not even sure that’s what it would take for them to slightly underperform–I think it’ll just take a two-week injury to Mike Conley, maybe a lower minute limit than expected for Marc Gasol, and/or a Chandler Parsons outage that lingers too long into November. They’ve got a lot of work to do in figuring out who does what, and all three of those guys are coming off of injuries–career-threatening ones in the case of Gasol, and Parsons’ sounds like maybe a more major rehab process than anyone expected back in June or July.
This is a win total for a team that’s good but not quite reaching its potential; a winning season while figuring out all of this change and integrating all of these new pieces should still be considered a success, but I’m not sure the average Grizzlies fan agrees, and I know the guys on the team probably don’t see it that way.
In years past this would have been the “Can we put a headset on the coach?” scenario. Maybe Fizdale struggles out of the gate to get the team on board with what he’s trying to get them to do. Maybe Chandler Parsons doesn’t come back until Christmas. Maybe Chandler Parsons doesn’t come back until Christmas and Marc Gasol misses three weeks in December and Zach Randolph takes his annual “sit for two weeks to rest because I tweaked my knee” break earlier than expected. Maybe the rookie backup point guards are a disaster, Conley has to play 38 minutes a night, and he starts accumulating weird injuries in February again. Maybe the defense is terrible because the young guys haven’t figured it out yet and some of the guys (Parsons, mostly) aren’t that great at defense anyway.
Point is, there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and if they start going wrong, it’s not tough to envision the wheels coming off of the Grizzlies’ season if they catch as many bad breaks as they did last year. But, here’s the other point: it’s possible for things to go this way and for it to still be a successful season. The Fizdale hire was definitely not just about this year. Signing Parsons, Conley, and Gasol to long-term deals wasn’t either. Everything that’s been talked about so far this year–instilling a new culture in the team, overhauling the principles of the offense and of the defense–is not realistically going to happen in one training camp or preseason. The Grizzlies will probably be a work in progress most of this year, and if things are tougher than expected, it’s still a success if by the end of it they’ve made progress towards becoming the team they want to be.
This is a tough year to talk about so far because there are so many unknowns, but those unknowns affect the team just as much as they do those who cover it. Is it likely that the Grizzlies won’t make it to 40 wins? I don’t think so. Is it likely that they make it to 50? More so, to be sure.
If injuries weren’t a concern and the Grizzlies were rolling into camp with Parsons and Gasol in peak form without any health concerns (and, to be clear, Gasol seems to have made a remarkable recovery), I’d feel more comfortable calling this team probably 4th or 5th in the West. But I’m just not sure that’s realistic. I think there will be bumps along the road because so much is new. I see them in the playoffs, but that’s about all I’ll commit to at this point.
That being said, if you’re only watching this team to see whether they win or lose on any given night, you’re going to miss out on what’s really interesting. How quickly can a group that’s been together a long time change their culture? How do they integrate a versatile talent the likes of which they’ve never played with? Does Fizdale–one of the most highly-touted assistants to become a head coach lately–have what it takes to be a head coach? Every season is about wins and losses, but this one also isn’t, and that’s what I’m excited to explore over the next however many months.